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January 14, 2013

To Burton, skids grow more trying with age

RCR/HHP Photo RCR/HHP Photo

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeff Burton has been through this before.

Years ago he weathered a monstrous winless streak, a 185-race skid that spanned two different teams and parts of six seasons before the veteran driver snapped it at Dover in the fall of 2006. He emerged from that experience rejuvenated, going on to earn three more race victories and four berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and in the process becoming living proof that a NASCAR career can indeed have a second act.

He clings to that experience these days, as he once again soldiers through a trough. Part of a Richard Childress Racing organization that’s trying to rebound from two down years, Burton has gone 149 races since his last trip to Victory Lane, at Charlotte in the autumn of 2008. He hasn’t qualified for the Chase since 2010. The drought is a little easier to stomach this time, because he knows he’s pulled out of something similar before, and gone on to enjoy some of the best seasons of his career.

But it’s a little more difficult, too, because he’s older this time, and he understands what some people will think about a 45-year-old man struggling to perform in a professional sport.“That’s been a little different,” Burton said during a break in Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona International Speedway. “I’ve never experienced that -- you’re too old. OK. But it’s easier, because I’ve been through it. And I know in my heart that we can come out of it. And if I didn’t believe that, I would walk into Richard’s office and say, ‘Richard, for some reason, I can’t get it done.’ That day might come. That day will come. It will come when I decide it’s not in my best interest or the team’s best interest. That day will come. I don’t think that day is now.”

Now is the time for some glimmers of hope, given that Burton’s No. 31 was consistently one of the fastest cars in the three-day Daytona test. He topped the speed charts in Friday morning’s single-car run session, and was again among the leaders Saturday morning. It shouldn’t have been a surprise -- restrictor-plate racing was the strongest part of Burton’s program last year, when he finished in the top-10 in all four races, highlighted by a runner-up performance at Daytona in July.

Everything else? Well, that’s another story. RCR is clearly going through a transition, evidenced by the fact that a team that once put all three of its cars in the Chase has lately struggled to get just one into the playoff. Testing limitations have hamstrung an organization that always tried to outwork everyone else. And the departure of former competition director Scott Miller to Michael Waltrip Racing left a void the team has found difficult to fill.

That said, it pained Burton even more that his program lagged behind the other two at RCR last season, placing 19th in final points. Leaning on teammate Kevin Harvick and setups in the No. 29 car, easily RCR’s best in recent seasons, didn’t work in 2012 as it had in some past years. But preseason testing in the 2013 car has gone well, new competition director Eric Warren has brought in fresh ideas, and Burton has a new crew chief in Luke Lambert, his former race engineer who managed the No. 31 team briefly in 2011 before overseeing two title runs for Elliott Sadler on the Nationwide Series.

“There was talk of going out of house and getting this big-name guy or that big-name guy, and I didn’t necessarily want to do that,” Burton said. “People need to understand, I didn’t just work with Luke at the end of 2011. I worked with Luke on that team for years. Luke has known me for a long time, and I’ve known him for a long time, and if we were going to make a change, let’s do it in-house. We ought to give Luke a chance.”Drew Blickensderfer, now crew chief for Marcos Ambrose at Roush Fenway affiliate Richard Petty Motorsports, ran Burton’s team for much of last season -- but never really fit, the driver said. “Drew didn’t do anything wrong,” Burton said. “But I will say -- and I think Drew would say this too -- he didn’t fit the way things work at RCR as well as he fits the way things work at Roush. … Drew was not overly happy with how the company was being run, and honestly it was in Drew’s best interest to (leave). If he can go back and get affiliated with Roush, that’s where he’s going to have his success.”

So now Burton is reunited with a crew chief with whom he experienced a nice run to close the 2011 season. He’s seen positive results in testing with the new Generation-6 car at Charlotte, and the plate program hasn’t seemed to skip a beat. He and Harvick are even running more similar setups again, harkening back to better days. But the drought is still there -- as are the doubters, as prominent as ever in an age of social media.

Burton said he was the target of a lot of negativity last season on Twitter, on which he has over 65,000 followers. If the same thing happens in 2013, he’ll shut down his account. “If I get into June, and I’m reading tweets from people that are ugly … I’m just going to get off. And that would be a shame, because a lot of my fans really enjoy it. But it’s not worth it to me. The aggravation isn’t worth it,” the 21-time race winner said.

“My wife can say anything to me. Richard Childress can say anything to me. My crew can say anything to me. Anybody on that team, they have free license to say anything they want to me, because they know the whole situation,” he added. “But when you’ve got a person who knows absolutely nothing except for what they see on TV -- they don’t know you as a person, they don’t know your situation, they know nothing. They barrage on you, and I don’t live like that. I don’t treat people like that, so I’m not going to be treated like that. If you’re on Twitter, and you want to interact with your fans, there’s no way to just ignore it. Not for me. So I won’t deal with that again. I understand you’re going to get some crap. But I won’t deal with that again.”

There’s one sure way to prevent that -- improvement. Toward that end, early signs have been positive.  “From what I’ve seen in the testing, we’re in better shape than we were,” Burton said. But ask whether he’s confident heading into the 2013 season, and he pauses. He needs to see some performance on the race track before he’s willing to go that far.

“If I weren’t confident in my abilities, I wouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “But if I were as confident as Brad Keselowski should be, somebody needs to hit me in the head. You’ve got to always believe. When you’re in the hole and you’ve got to dig out, you’ve got believe you can do it. … But I have no right to be confident. I have the right to be optimistic. The confidence will be earned.”
 

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